In the Space Between, 2020
Introducing Monique Vettraino, Toronto Collagist
/DRI:M/ARTZ: You are based in Toronto, Canada. I regret not spending more time in the city, which I hear is culturally diverse. We went for business so there was very little time to take it in. Were you born and bred in Toronto? What’s the art & cultural scene like? Is there a community of collage artists?
Monique Vettraino: Born and bred in Toronto. This city really is a microcosm of the world and that kind of becomes part of your identity as a Torontonian, which is pretty cool. I feel as though I grew up around the globe whilst right here visiting my friend’s homes. The art and cultural scene is pretty great, albeit in remission like the rest of the world. My brother is a super talented Chef so he keeps me up to date with all the new restaurants we have to hit up. I’m not really one to keep my finger on the pulse but I do often get out to the big art exhibitions and sometimes the cool, more underground, venues. Now, of course, I want to see and do everything post-covid! Our art gallery was recently renovated and it’s very beautiful. My last AGO trip was to see the Rubens exhibition pre-lockdown. Seeing these iconic paintings up close was pretty mind-blowing. There is nothing like seeing art in the flesh, it’s a transportive experience. I’m learning of more and more local collage artists but there’s no organized community that I know of. I would like to explore developing a community of collage artists in the city and possible collage making meets in the future.
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Top Panel - The Amabie, 2020 / The Light That Failed , 2019 / Untitled, 2020
Bottom Panel - Lost With Your Own Ghost, 2019 / Spooky, 2021 / She Was Full of Wildflowers in Notebooks, 2020
DA: I read a feature on you a few months back on Toombes. So the story goes, you took a collage course through the Toronto School of Art, the stars aligned, illuminated your creative path and as the saying goes, the rest is history! Did you have an artistic background growing up? How much of it is what you’ve been taught? What have you learned on your own and what tools have guided you?
MV: I have always made things. I think I’ve always had this busy inner-thought machine streaming combination of angst and the ethereal and there’s really nowhere to go with that continuous narrative other than some creative outlet. I have to say, on the whole, I have had really bad art teachers and they were pretty damaging. Any artistic path I have tried to take in the past has led me astray. I went to college for glassblowing. We have a cultural hub here for the arts called Harbourfront on the lakeshore. As children, we would often visit the glassblowing studio and it was just magical. I was really excited to go to school to learn how to make what had been so enchanting to me as a child. Although I loved and will always love many elements of glass blowing (and shout out to Chihuly—a massive inspiration), it was not a perfect fit. It’s a very expensive art form to take on. The heat is oppressive and you cannot touch or mold the material. Through glassblowing, I learned about myself—I need contact. Like walking barefoot in the wet morning grass or planting flowers without wearing gloves and never really getting the dirt out from under my fingernails. Mixed media collage enables me to have this sensory experience—the texture and smell of old, weathered and stained paper, its fragility, the tearing and adding, then removing layers with gluey fingers—this is home. The collage course at Toronto School of Art was such a healing experience. Having a gifted, encouraging instructor matters. All the pieces came together here.
Strike a Light, 2020
/DA: Toronto must be a gold mine for collagists with all the second-hand shops and used bookstores peppering the city. Do you have a favorite source material and where do you find it? Do you have a collection of images that you dare not cut up or is everything fair game?
MV: It really is a gold mine! I have stores that are 10 minutes walking distance away in a variety of directions. There is one at the top of my street called The Monkey’s Paw which is so dangerous. He collects rare and unusual printed matter which means it’s pricey and full of temptation. I miss looking for hidden gems, another covid casualty. One of my favourite finds was at a Value Village outside of the city so perhaps their items are not swooped up as quickly. It’s a vintage photography bird book, I use it in most of my collages. I’d say much of my material comes from vintage Life magazines, I have lots from the 40’s. My family is so supportive of my collage making—my husband, son, and brothers—they too hunt down vintage mags for me. My biggest supplier is my mum. She scours the internet for material and it is the sweetest thing. We will also go on weekend getaways to hunt for material in little antique shops. This kind of perusing is such a beautiful, integral part of the process. That sort of absorption of the emotion of past lives lived, the joy, sadness, cruelty of life being drawn to its close by death and ghosts, always ghosts. I sometimes hold on to a rare vintage magazine or book but I let it know that its day is coming. I have to be in the right mood to dig into it and throw caution to the wind. But I believe that its contents have a better chance of being seen and appreciated in a piece of art rather than buried under my stacks. It’s a resuscitation of sorts with an acknowledgement that there is a history, a story, secrets to be decoded and digested in a new environment.
DA: On that note, what’s your workspace like and how do you organize your materials? Are you a tidy creator or does chaos reign in the studio?
MV: Well, damn. This is a real problem. I love some degree of chaos but there comes a point when I can’t function. I am working in a little corner at a little desk. Does anyone have suggestions on how to organize a tiny workspace? SOS!!! Please send me a message!!
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Monique's Workspace, Self-Portrait, & Glass-blown Objects
DA: Please tell us about your technique. How do you go about creating your complex, multi-layered pieces?
MV: Kind of a tough question. I think my first real transformative moment was when I did an accidental image transfer. I remember rubbing the paper away and this piece of a face emerged and I was awestruck! I knew immediately that this was the direction I wanted to go in. A weathered wonderland. I would say every piece, to this day, is an experiment. Sometimes I look back and don’t know how I got certain effects. It’s all an intuitive, wildly expressive experiment. All the anxiety that has accumulated over the years in terms of making art the right way has fallen away. There are no mistakes and if there are, they probably only benefit the piece and if they don’t, you just add more layers. In a technical sense, I often say to myself, let’s fuck things up. I use a lot of chalk pastel and graphite, acrylic paint, image transfer, decollage, I rub away ink with a wet paintbrush, sandpaper, scratching and picking with my nails. I’ve gone through the paper before depending on my level of intensity. It’s hard to talk about your art, especially when it’s intuitive and it’s sometimes more illuminating to hear what the viewer sees. I’ve had a few comments that have stuck with me. One person said that my collages felt as though the pieces grew into each other, like they were always that way. I love that. It made me look more closely at how I make a piece. Another said that they loved that my collages looked like dirt. Haha! I never thought of it that way but yes!! I’m so about dirt. All the shit we carry and try to hide is such a huge part of my narrative and also, just straight up playing in the dirt, nothing better!!
So Far From View, 2019
DA: I view art as an extension of its creator and their inner world. What has influenced your journey as an artist? Would you share a childhood experience or memory that has shaped your aesthetic?
MV: My life was shaped by the women in it. There were numerous struggles but what I would say was the most defining experience was our childhood summers. Toronto is the largest city in Canada but it is conveniently located close to the natural beauty of northern Ontario. We spent summers largely at a cottage by the lake that was most generously offered to us by family friends. We spent the days swimming, canoeing, fishing, toad catching, rock collecting, wild flower and blackberry picking and perusing antique shops. We would take trips to Algonquin Park in search of wildlife and gaze at the night sky for shooting stars. Such beauty was a springboard for my creativity—it was and is a place to dream and revisit. My ultimate fantasy is to have a studio in these surroundings.
DA: Your collages are beautiful, visual poems. They bring to mind layers upon layers of decaying wallpaper that have not been stripped away properly before the new paper is reapplied—in this way they beckon the viewer into a mysterious world of personal histories stretching back over time. Would you indulge your fans and tell us what lies beneath all those layers in a collage of your choice?
MV: What an exquisite overview, so perfect, thank you! When I approach a piece, I sometimes have a predetermined narrative but often not. They are poems to me and oftentimes I try to entertain myself with their inherent mystery. I don’t want to know all their secrets, it’s for them and the observer to keep.
I’ve never told anyone before
Steals itself down the slope of this
Silence responds in this moment
As it senses what comes
Before and after
But rest is not re-birth
She is the sleeping vigil
DA: Women are a prominent feature in your work. While you do use men occasionally in your collages the female form is a recurring theme. Is there an overarching message you want to convey to your viewers through the feminine imagery you use?
MV: I think about this a lot. Right off the bat, my impression of this is I’m telling stories that are mine or that I can imagine based on my experience. I have a male figure in my hands and I think to myself, well, what are you going through? I feel like I have to fake it. When I see men using women as their primary figures, I think how do you do that? Why do you do that? Not as judgement but curiosity. I grew up surrounded by women. I had very little male presence in my life. My personal narrative is the core but has been strongly influenced by what I was surrounded by which is so uniquely female. The rich historical narratives of survival as women through war, my mum being a single parent of three, struggle, financial burdens, disparity, trauma, beauty, strength, it will forever be an endless source of inspiration.
DA: We have become acquainted with one another through Instagram. The platform has allowed me to be a part of a global community of artists and share my own art internationally. Honestly, I couldn’t live without it. I know a bunch of people who are leaving it behind because of concerns about big tech and data leaks. What are your thoughts about social media? In your opinion, how has the platform elevated and/or hindered collage and the artists working in the medium?
MV: I have avoided all forms of social media. I’m an introvert and just not that interested. I joined instagram for februllage 2019. It was my first social media experiment. I didn’t know much about collage and to have this initiation with Rhed Fawell and Miss Printed as the organizers was just explosively inspiring. And then connecting with artists, the encouragement and support, and having this meaningful, soul-stirring work to light up the endorphin centers of my brain has been so artistically galvanizing. It has changed my life entirely. There is no way I would have any eyes on my art if not for this platform. It is also what got me into a rhythm of continuing to produce art as opposed to my lifelong stop and start. After februllage, I looked for another challenge to keep making collage and that’s when I found Paris Collage Collective. I really credit these platforms as being the vehicle I needed to keep creating and I am so grateful to them. In terms of the big tech concerns, I am so technically inept. I’d have to say, in this respect, I’d prefer to remain ignorant.
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Top Panel - Untitled, 2019 / Assassins, 2019 / Why Did You Bring Me Here?, 2020
Bottom Panel - Of Winters Rule, 2020 / Until the Light Shifts, 2020 / When All is Past I Dream , 2020
DA: You have been doing a ton of collage collaborations. My first collab, hosted by Collage Collab & Matchmaking, was with @Vaccinesforfear. We are very different stylistically so it was interesting to see what we came up with collectively! It was really fun. What has it been like to work with other artists on a collage piece? Did you have any reservations at first? Collage is an experimental medium but it’s also very artist centric. It’s cool to see each collab infused with the personality of both artists.
MV: If I can stay in my pajamas with fuzzy socks in my little nest I will. It has been a challenge for me to push myself out of it but it’s been so important, artistically, for me to do so. My first collaboration was with @margotbirgitte. She asked me to collaborate for a submission for @fanclub.13. Margot’s work caught my eye when I first joined instagram. I so admired her distinctive style, her minimalist, lonesome landscapes. I was terrified! Margot was kind enough to send me a starter that was so close to my style that it really just eased me gently into the world of collaboration. We have since done additional collaborations and look forward to more in the future.
Through collaborating, you get a sense of how your co-conspirator works. You learn a lot about your own practice. It illuminates elements about your art that you may not have noticed before when you try and make it work with another artist. Your thinking shifts from self to what you like about their piece and how to marry the two, or at least get them dating! It encourages problem solving and finding new ways of working and I like that. I’ve learned a lot from collaborations. There’s an intimacy working with another artist’s piece—a vulnerability in that process—and I like that too.
DA: 2020 posed a lot of challenges- yet, all in all, it was a productive year for me. Art making has always been therapeutic for me—I need fantasy to thrive! How has creativity in general helped you? What is most inspiring to you through difficult times?
MV: Oh, for sure, I am the same. I’ve found, in this respect, there’s been a real ebb and flow. I’m either gushing art or at an absolute stand still. Again, this is when PCC and februllage extended have come to my rescue, as well as calls for artists. Sometimes I have to force art because I’m stuck and I’m so scared that I might lose the momentum. Having a prompt or specific call is so helpful when creativity is languishing. I’ve also found that the prompts and calls push my boundaries to make things I would otherwise have never made. Two examples would be “Yellow” for februllage extended and “Canary” for the most recent februllage. Both very yellow, oddly enough. Yellow is not a colour I would typically use. It’s too bright and sunny for my moody cave. Yet, they have been two of my most popular pieces.
Yellow, 2020 / Canary, 2021
DA: Share a film that has inspired you! Share a tune that has been on your playlist these days!
MV: I think I have been doing what so many of us have been doing and bingeing series. I’ve probably seen every murder mystery/ghost story that’s ever been made. A few movies that I have seen recently and really enjoyed were Blue Jay and God’s Own Country. I was utterly obsessed with Call Me By Your Name. I love a dreamy escape, especially an Italian countryside, first love kind of escape. The screenplay, cinematography, and soundtrack are all so good and then there’s the father/son scene at the end, and Elio by the fire as the closing credits run, oh yeah, I really do love this movie. Of all time? Maybe Cinema Paradiso. I love movies, so hard to choose. Music is so big for me. I’m always listening to music while making art. When I started making collages I felt as though I hadn’t found a style that I loved. My thought was I wanted to make art that was like a combination of the Cocteau Twins and Skinny Puppy or Ministry, something raw. I feel like I have found that style and there is a sense of relief that people are responding to what I’m trying to transmit. Concerts and dancing are therapy that I have so missed during Covid. I’d say my fave genres are post-punk and dark wave/goth. My most impressionable concert prior to lockdown was Boy Harsher. I sometimes need a female voice and seeing her perform live felt liberating in a way I can’t really describe.
I’ll go with ”A Realness” by Boy Harsher.
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Kiss, 2020 / Untitled, 2020 / Communicating, 2019
DA: Last question! Do you have any big projects in the works that you would like to share with us? What can your fans look forward to in 2021 and beyond?
MV: A few things are percolating in my mind. My childhood soul sister, femme fatale is @inbetweenrinks (check out her beautiful, sexy, dark-humour filled collage account!). We have shared many a journey together, including collage, and would like to join forces embarking on a new path with some fresh projects. We would love to delve into the realm of outdoor murals and take the city streets by a collage storm! I have had people ask me if I do workshops. I will have to combat a fear of being in front of a crowd but it’s part of the developmental process. It has been a wish of mine to offer a workshop that is specifically geared towards combating artistic anxiety. It’s been a lifelong journey for me to get to a space where it’s okay to fuck up. I want people struggling with this to feel that, as well. When you feel free to fuck up, you will find your artistic voice.
Instagram | moniquevettraino